Why beliefs may not matter


In the US, Australia and the UK (and no doubt elsewhere) people are drawing battle lines over beliefs. Some who identify as Christian are wanting to wage an ideological battle against non-believers. Atheists are battling fundamentalist religious beliefs.

It’s all something of a mess made worse by our struggle to adapt readily to the emerging complex, diverse and pluralistic communities. It’s also a doesn’t help that we think we can engage in rational debates about theological beliefs or that they are even amenable to reason at all.

In an ideal world our communities would comprise people of similar levels of spiritual, intellectual and psychological development. But they don’t.  Hence it becomes not only pointless but dangerous to imagine that our approaches to how beliefs are validated are universally applicable.

The Christian apologist who firmly believes that Christ is the ruler of the world is no better or worse than the devoted materialist/atheist who insists not conception of the divine is reasonable. Neither makes any effort to understand the other and allow them to be who they are.

There are issues of coercion and liberty that are genuinely difficult because they require that, in order to allow freedom, any universalist belief cannot be permitted in a pluralistic culture.  In the US in particular Christian nationalists are creating very real problems with their demands for the universal validity of their claims.

After spending the past 6 years trying to understand what belief is, I have concluded that it’s a construction that satisfies our psychological needs. Our science is moving toward alignment with mystical ideas that reality is crafted by our minds – which are inextricably linked to our psychological states. This is not yet a widely held or popular position, but it is being explored – and that’s a good thing. Materialism isn’t a dominant as it once was, even though it will be decades, if not centuries, before it is finally sent packing as an intellectually justified position to hold.

In essence there is no discernible ultimate objective reality. It is all relational. We can reasonably argue that the Christian god isn’t objectively real, but the same applies to denying that there is any god at all. There are deeper metaphysical arguments about the nature of reality of course, but my point is that we don’t function beyond our psychological nature so we cannot insist our claims are universally valid. To do so is at best impertinent and at worst deluded – and hence injurious to our shared wellbeing.

So, claims about the supremacy of a god can only ever be an expression of a believer’s psychological state. Hence insistence upon universal validity is not only psychologically ‘primitive’ it is also aggressive. It is a kind of tribal mentality where uniformity has survival value. It is not applicable to large complex communities.

Aggressive claims of universal validity seem also to be a response to a perceived existential threat. Conservative religious fundamentalists whose mindset is distinctly tribal legitimately feel under threat by modernity which is promoting non-tribal values. These are more humanist, secular, and inclusive. In a sense they are also more psychologically sophisticated. The tension caused by the mismatch between motives for assertion of universal validity of beliefs and levels of psychological sophistication is a genuine cause for concern. But it cuts both ways. Materialistic atheism is also an extremist and intolerant universalist position.

The antidote to aggressive tribalism’s claims of universal validity isn’t ridicule or employ overly rational counterargument. It’s something more subtle and sensitive than current opponents to such extreme passions seem presently be able to muster. Part of the problem is that opponents wrongly assert their position is more rational. It isn’t. It’s just that their psychological position is different – and maybe more in line with desired values to enable peaceful collective living. Secularists do tend to be more disposed to inclusive principles than do many religious. In fact, we could assert that the values Jesus espoused have escaped formal religion and entered the secular world where they are in harmony with a universal humanism.

Values and behaviors

Regardless of what we believe, our ability to live in harmony with others comes down to what we value and how we behave.

A materialist and a religious devotee can live in harmony perfectly well if they agree on key shared values and acceptable behaviors. This is how our complex pluralistic cultures operate these days – most of the time. What messes things up are extreme beliefs that are claimed to be universal – but without common assent.

If we understand that arguments don’t validate beliefs, only articulate them, we can learn that being distracted by them can weaken our chances of living in harmony with people who are not like us.

What we value as a community isn’t the same things we value as the foundation of a close friendship. The more intimate our relationships the more we prefer people who are like us in important ways. We can handle people who are not like us in our community provided they agree to certain standards of behaviour.

This is normal. This is how communities generally work. Attempts to impose universalistic beliefs usually end in conflict. Our normal is diversity and peaceful co-existence. But our ability to stretch that normal to accommodate unfamiliar and even novel forms of diversity can be tested. Adverse and extreme reactions against accommodating greater diversity tend to be expressed most strongly by those whose religious beliefs are asserted as universally valid.

We can believe what we like

When we understand that we craft beliefs to suit our psychological needs what we believe becomes way less important than our psychological integrity.

Our own understanding of the world impacts how we act in the world, but it doesn’t essentially alter how we behave – we just act through the filters of how that knowledge describes the world – and in accordance with our psychological state. The hint that this is true is to be found in history. Accounts from the ancient world are readily recognizable to us even though our technological development has been massive. Likewise, we have sci stories set in the far future, but they must have psychological themes we can relate to. We are all human and we share the same essential psychology whether we lived 7,000 years ago or 3,000 into the future. Same drama, just different sets and costumes.

Anthropology doesn’t reveal huge differences in the psychological states between stone-age hunter gatherers and middle-class inhabitants of contemporary cities. Our technologies and our knowledge stories may differ hugely, but our humanity is shared and familiar to us all. It has been cultural influences (religious and intellectual) that have created the illusion, and delusion, of inequity. The idea of race, for example is scarcely a few centuries old.

Our passion for reason has led us astray. We have come to see the reasoned argument as the measure of our intelligence. Hence highly educated people will argue for materialism or the Christian God with utter confidence in their reasoning.  What is characterized as a want of intelligence in their opponent is simply a different psychological disposition – developed by life experience and natural inclination.

I didn’t develop an affection for animism because the ideas I found appealed to my intellect, but because they accorded with my experience. I didn’t reason my way into what I now think. I got there because it made sense of my experiences. A religious faith will serve the needs of some, while faith in the dominion of reason will serve the needs of others.

Now, people develop beliefs for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with non-ordinary experiences. But what they elect to believe is still more determined by their psychological disposition than anything else. They will, of course, craft their beliefs in forms that reflect their appreciation of sensible argument is. The audience for agreeing this is the case tends to be selective – and confined to like-minded allies.

I have avoided the term ‘psychospiritual’ and just stuck with psychological because what applies to the spiritual also applies to the ‘secular’. There is no natural separate category – just what we create in our cultural contexts.

However, a useful guide is what is involved in spiritual training – the disciplining of our emotions and the quietening of the mind, as well as disciplining the imagination and favoring the valuing of personal authenticity. In some traditions significant intellectual training is also valued – but usually never instead of the personal psychological disciplines.

Traditions can become captured by culture so that disciplines of the mind are no more than establishing fidelity to dogma and tradition and personal discipline hardly progresses beyond obedience to rule and authority.  There’s a reason why, in some traditions, priests become purveyors of soulless doctrine and are sexual abusers.  Religion per se isn’t at fault here. It has the same vulnerability as any other human institution.


We must come to distinguish between beliefs as description of how the world works (according to culture, tradition and individual psychological dispositions) and beliefs about values and behaviors that have universal application.

Think the ‘golden rule’ of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This is reflected in rules of hospitality, ways of pragmatically living together, the Buddhist ideal of compassion, the Christian ideal of loving your neighbor – and simple intelligent self-preservation.

In the Roman Empire people from diverse religious backgrounds came together, and pragmatically paid homage to Roman deities as required. They lived together in relative harmony because what somebody else believed didn’t matter. Were they good community members? Were the good neighbors?

Early Christians caused bother when they declined to be equally pragmatic. They were persecuted, as a result. That exclusive intolerance has travelled with the faith ever since – with varying degrees of adverse consequences.

I am writing this on my iPhone. I have a grip disability that makes this device a blessing to me. I love science and I love tech. They have made my life better in countless ways. But science isn’t a foundation for explaining human experience – yet. I do think it will get there in a few centuries of intellectual and cultural evolution.

We are still in a ‘boy’s world’ sense of bravado in which intellect is king and emotions are ‘girly things’ to be avoided and denied. But things are changing. I am a fan of The Psychology Podcast which shows me the younger generation is acknowledging the power and validity of our emotional (read psychological) selves. This is a refreshing and vital evolution.

In important ways contemporary psychological research not only validates the essential themes of Buddhism (compassion) and Christianity (love) it sets out pathways for being nicer and kinder with no connection to religion or spirituality at all. You don’t need religion now to be a good community member or a good neighbor. Contemporary psychological and moral insights do the job nicely.

Why bother with religion then? In terms of what it means to be a decent human being that has never been the primary function of religion. This has been woven into religion because it has been part of a holistic discourse on the human condition that has embraced the range of human behaviour.

Religion as we know it began with the animistic sense that our reality was dynamic and conscious, and we humans needed to understand how to relate to it- as a community more than as an individual. In fact, considering the individual’s experience is a very modern notion.

The idea that reality requires us to develop a relationship with it isn’t weird. It is implicit in the religious and materialistic worldviews – just expressed in very different ways. We develop different knowledge stories that reflect our particular psychological filters of our experience, communities and cultures.

But neither materialism nor Christianity (and this may be true for other faiths – I just don’t know enough about them to comment) creates a sensible space for an individual to develop a coherent and effective relationship with that reality. That’s not to say they can’t – because they do that for some – just not many. These days the personal experience is paramount. Traditional communities of thought and belief are less influential – and are poorly equipped to cater to individual needs. New communities are forming, of course.

I found, via animism, a scant foothold on a system of thought that made sense to me. Animism is an out-of-date idea now. But it hasn’t yet been replaced with a superior set of ideas – at least not in an easy to find and digest form. I think we are evolving new ways of understanding the human condition. There are no knowledge certainties, but there are fairly universal values and behaviors that guide well in how to share our communities with others.

I find myself liking the secular more because it meets my values needs – how to be a nice person and why this matters – way better than any religious text. There are universal human attributes that stand in their own account and don’t now need religious texts – though once that was the only source of understanding our subjective/psychological nature. In the past religion, law, and tradition guided families and communities. All three have been evolving for the past few millennia, and we must adapt – as we mostly do.

What is left is the fascinating range of thinking about the nature of reality. The idea that any religious or materialist thinker has a definitive rational opinion is naive. At best they have ideas that appeal to people of particular psychological dispositions. We have diversity because we are diverse. Reality is big enough to accommodate the range of our ideas and opinions.

The cult of reason has turned thinking into a contest – and while this has been useful in evolving our rational understanding of practical things it is a poor model for social and communal thought, which is fundamentally collaborative and inclusive.

When it comes to the region of metaphysics, especially, we must step back and remind ourselves that this is a collaboration and not a contest. We are all discovering the nature of reality via our efforts to be less and less self-referential.

It’s time to stop pointless contestation and pay more attention to living together. That won’t solve the problem – but it may get us going in a better direction.

Arguing about beliefs has led to brutal and pointless wars, and to the persecution, torture and murder of community members. We have invaded and enslaved peoples we have believed inferior with a righteous zeal.

Adherents to universalist beliefs are now excusing conduct that was once unimaginable and inexcusable as they defend against a perceived threat. We can do better than make matters worse for them by making that threat more concrete. Even the ‘good guys’ are now being unkind, insensitive, and arrogant. It’s not just the religious conservative under stress. It’s hard for us all.

I think there are gods, but that’s another discussion.

Some useful resources

There is an abundance of podcasts that help us think better, more modestly, and behave better toward others. They are a kind of secular spirituality in that they celebrate the human spirit in a kind and inclusive way.  Below I have listed a few that I esteem (the list is by no means exhaustive, and I have no doubt there are many excellent ones I don’t know about).

  • Rethinking with Adam Grant
  • You Are not So Smart
  • No Stupid Questions
  • To The Best of Our Knowledge
  • Ideas – CBC
  • The Thinking Mind Podcast
  • Expanding Mind
  • Freakonomics Radio

For those interested in pushing metaphysical boundaries there are a couple of YouTube channels. There are also several YouTube channels that examine religious beliefs and traditions with a strong scholarly foundation. As above, this list is neither definitive nor exhaustive.

  • The Monroe Institute
  • The Other Side NDE
  • Mythvision
  • Data Over Dogma
  • Gresham College
  • Search – Where Do Deity Concepts Come From?
  • Search – Jeffrey Kripal
  • Search – Bernardo Kastrup

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